Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
And yet this is only one of many tactics available to a determined opponent. In yet another fossilized rule left over from the days of stagecoach travel, any senator can freeze any bill merely by placing a personal "hold" on it. Breaking holds can be done, but it is extremely tedious, time-consuming business, and the Senate does it only when it feels forced. Again, Republicans in the current Congress have been far more promiscuous in the employment of this anti-majoritarian tactic than any before them. Of the eighty-one judicial nominations Obama has sent to the Senate at this writing, only thirty have been approved, largely due to single-senator holds. (One nominee to the federal bench took nine months to come to the floor, only to be confirmed ninety-nine to nothing.) Obama himself pointed out on June 18, 2010, that his administration was still awaiting confirmation of 136 federal appointees. Often, the reasons for a hold have nothing whatever to do with the person or issue in question. Richard Shelby (R, Alabama), for instance, placed a "blanket hold" on dozens of nominees over complaints he had involving a Northrop Grumman tanker contract and the construction of a counterterrorism center in his home state. And when Kentucky's Jim Bunning decided to put a hold on legislation allowing the extension of unemployment benefits, he not only single-handedly caused nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers to lose their benefits, he also caused a furlough of nearly 2,000 Department of Transportation employees without pay, the cutoff of $38 million in project funding for Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest, and the loss of $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, DC, area. Alan Bersin, whose appointment to head the Customs and Border Patrol operation (now part of DHS) was stalled until President Obama broke the hold with a series of fifteen recess appointments in late March, 2010, had been US Attorney in California, head of a Justice Department unit overseeing US-Mexico border affairs, head of the San Diego school system, secretary of education for California under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and an assistant secretary at DHS. Three CBP commissioners, including two from the Bush administration, asked Republican senators to approve Bersin's appointment, given the sensitivity of the office he was up for. Why was his appointment never approved by Congress? According to the Wall Street Journal, "Senator Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) has raised questions about his personal taxes."
Of course when attempting to determine why the people's will is so frequently frustrated in our system, any author would be remiss if he did not turn first and foremost to the power of money. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the federal government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year. By the final quarter of the year, lobbies were handing out $20 million a day. The most generous spreaders of wealth were in the pharmaceutical and health products industries, whose $266.8 million set a record for "the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry for one year" according to CRP. At one point, PhRMA employed forty-eight lobbying firms, in addition to in-house lobbyists, with a total of 165 people overall, according to the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal.
Max Baucus (D, Montana), who wrote the original Senate healthcare bill, raised roughly $2 million from the health sector in the past five years, according to opensecrets.org, despite running in a low-cost media market with marginal opposition. Political scientists often argue that it is nearly impossible to determine a direct cause and effect between a given political contribution and a vote in Congress. Apologists for the current system of legalized graft—including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in a 5–4 majority with his fellow justices—will therefore argue that the billions of shareholder dollars are being doled out by corporations for no apparent purpose. This is, unfortunately, one of those areas where political science is worse than useless when applied to real life. To give just one of perhaps a quadrillion potential examples: in March the New York Times reported that Senator Bob Corker (R, Tennessee) had convinced the Senate Banking Committee's chairman, Chris Dodd (D, Connecticut), to remove a provision from draft bank legislation that would have empowered federal authorities to crack down on the onerous practices of "payday lenders." Dodd had planned to give a new consumer protection agency the power to write and enforce rules governing these maggots who prey on the poor and those without decent credit ratings with loans sometimes averaging 400 percent annual interest. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that industry tripled its lobbying budget between 2005 and 2008 to $2.1 million. The money itself can be difficult to track. For instance, W. Allan Jones, who started Check Into Cash, in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1993, and now enjoys 1,100 stores in thirty states, has been what the Times calls "a longtime friend and supporter of Mr. Corker's." Jones, his relatives and his employees have given Corker's campaign funds at least $31,000 since 2001, when he ran for mayor of Chattanooga. "Asked whether the industry's campaign contributions to him had shaped his thinking about the issue, Corker replied, "categorically, absolutely not." Well, that settles that. Clearly the overriding public interest in having something as inherently sleazy as a barely regulated payday loan industry must have been Corker's philosophical motivation. (In a denouement that will be familiar to those who closely followed Democrats' attempt to secure bipartisan support for healthcare reform, Corker decided he would not join Dodd in introducing the legislation, and it became a moot point anyway when the Senate Banking Committee finally adopted Dodd's own bill on a party-line vote. That bill allows for a new consumer bureau to enforce the rules it writes for "nonbank financial companies"—payday lenders included—over a certain size.)
Of course, Corker and the payday loan business is just a microcosm of what happens every day on vastly larger scale. As of late May, members of the financial committees in both houses had already enjoyed 845 separate fund-raising events, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit Washington tracking group. According to an analysis by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for the New York Times, fourteen freshmen who serve on the House Financial Services Committee raised 56 percent more in campaign contributions than other freshmen. Party leaders know this, and they place potentially vulnerable members on this committee to aid them with their fundraising. Naturally they are expected to do the industry's bidding there. And it should surprise no one to learn that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members enjoyed an average of $52,000 from the oil and gas industry in the current election cycle, compared with $24,000 for others in the Senate, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Financial power need not be justified merely on the basis of the votes it sways. Rather, it can define potential alternatives, invent arguments, inundate with propaganda and threaten with merely hypothetical opposition. Politicians do not need to "switch" their votes to meet the demands of this money. They can bury bills; they can rewrite the language of bills that are presented; they can convince certain Congressmen to be absent on the days certain legislation is discussed; they can confuse debate; they can bankroll primary opposition. The manner and means through which money can operate is almost as infinite as its uses in any bordello, casino or Wall Street brokerage. Just about the only thing money can't buy in politics is love, which is OK because, as Senator David Vitter or ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer can tell you, politics provides plenty of substitutes.
Despite his attempts to transform the way business is transacted in Washington, special interest money worked its will through Barack Obama's agenda in Congress to the point where it is simply foolish to discuss almost any issue without focusing first on who was buying what from whom. Consider healthcare. Why was a single-payer program defined as off the table from the proverbial get-go? Why was it impossible to include a public option in the final legislation? Why was the re-importation of prescription drugs declared out of bounds? Why does the insurance industry get to elude anti-trust regulations, particularly given the inefficiency with which it delivers its fundamental product? Why did it prove impossible simply to lower the lower the age at which Americans became eligible to buy into Medicare? Why wasn't Medicare allowed to negotiate drug prices for seniors in order to secure lower costs? Any of these options would quite likely have lowered the cost of deliverable healthcare to Americans, and significantly increased both the system's reach and its efficiency. The members of the Obama administration working on the issue were undoubtedly aware of all this. And yet they finally presented Congress with legislation that included none of them. Why?
Well, it wasn't the president's cowardice, his shortsightedness, a lack of character or an absence of cojones, though many on the left chose to attack Obama on exactly these terms. Without powerful special interests lined up on Obama's side, the battle for reform would have been lost before it had begun. As it was, Obama won it by the skin of his teeth.